Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Space Merchants

The Space Merchants is a science fiction novel written by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth and published in 1953. It’s also one of the great dystopian novels of the modern era.

The future world of The Space Merchants is controlled entirely by huge corporations. Government functions merely as a rubber stamp for the decisions of the corporations. Congress is owned lock, stock and barrel by these corporations and the President is a figurehead with no power at all. By far the most powerful companies are the advertising agencies, and the most powerful agencies are Taunton Associates and Fowler Schocken.

This is a horrifically overpopulated world but population growth is still enthusiastically encouraged. More population means more cheap labour and more consumers and therefore more sales, and that means more profit. No-one questions the assumption that this is a good thing.

This is also a totalitarian society but it’s what we would today call a soft totalitarianism, enforced mostly by propaganda and social pressure. The iron fist beneath the velvet glove is only revealed when a consumer commits a really serious crime, such as questioning the value of advertising.

Competition between corporations is fierce but out-and-out murder is frowned upon unless proper notification has been given that a state of commercial feud exists. Corporations have gone beyond the stage of running the state - they now function as states themselves. There are no police forces - law enforcement has been entirely privatised.

Art and popular entertainment no longer exist apart from their role in providing opportunities for advertising.

The story is narrated by Mitch Courtenay, a star class copysmith with Fowler Schocken. Mitch has just been given a new assignment. He has been put in charge of the Venus account. An immense rocket has been constructed which will transport the first Earth colonists to Venus. The colony will of course be run by Fowler Schocken entirely for the benefit of Fowler Schocken and its associated companies. 

One minor problem is that nobody in their right mind would want to be a colonist on Venus. But this isn’t really a problem at all. By the time Fowler Schocken’s Venus advertising campaign is in full swing everyone will want to be a Venus colonist.

Mitch Courtenay’s life is going pretty well, apart from his marriage. He’d like to make the marriage permanent but Kathy won’t agree. In fact she wants to end the agreement before the end of the trial period. And there is one other minor irritant in Mitch’s life - someone is trying to kill him. This is puzzling since as far as he knows no other corporation has declared a commercial feud against Fowler Schocken.

Mitch soon finds himself on a roller coaster ride of terror and misery. Having people trying to kill you is bad enough but he finds that his identity has been stolen and he now faces the most appalling fate imaginable - having to live as a consumer.

He also gets mixed up with the consies. The consies are the Conservationists. These are dangerous fanatics who believe that overpopulation is out of control, that life has become sterile and meaningless and that deurbanisation and a return to a more traditional lifestyle are essential. They are so extreme that they even question whether increasing consumption is a good thing.

The plot has some rather wild twists and turnings as Mitch discovers that all his assumptions about the world and about the people he knows may be quite wrong.

While this novel doesn’t have the literary polish of the great dystopian novels of Huxley and Orwell it does feature a dystopian which is every bit as fully worked out and every bit as convincing. If 1984 was the great communist dystopian novel then The Space Merchants is the great capitalist dystopian novel. There is however one feature that both dystopias have in common - they are societies in which the elites have absolute power while the mass of the people have no power at all. And, interestingly enough, the capitalist elites of The Space Merchants maintain their control by much the same methods as the communist elites in 1984 - through the control of language, by rewriting the past, by encouraging people to denounce dissidents and through endless and all-pervasive propaganda. And the consies serve much the same purpose as Emmanuel Goldstein in 1984 - it seems that every totalitarianism has to have an enemy as a focus of fear and hatred.

Pohl and Kornbluth are careful not to introduce any radical new technologies into their tale.  Every technology is this novel is merely an extrapolation of technologies that existed in the early 1950s such as rocketry, radio and television. The intention was obviously to make this dystopia as plausible as possible. What makes the book truly terrifying today is not this plausibility but the fact that so much of what the authors predict has already come true.

The Space Merchants is also very amusing (in a sometimes very dark way) and highly entertaining. It’s very pulpy but in a way that’s a strength - the crassness of a wold run by advertising agencies lends itself to a pulpy treatment. 

Very highly recommended.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Nigel Fitzgerald’s Midsummer Malice

Midsummer Malice was Nigel Fitzgerald’s first foray into the field of detective fiction. First published in 1953 it’s actually a bit of a hybrid albeit an interesting one.

Nigel Fitzgerald (1906-1981) was an Irishman who was destined for a career in the law until he caught the acting bug. His passion for the theatre comes through very strongly in his debut novel and is in fact one of the book’s greatest strengths.

Midsummer Malice opens with a brutal murder. Superintendent Duffy of the Garda Síochána (Ireland’s police force) hurries to the scene from Dublin. The murder took place in a wood near the town of Cahirmore. The victim was Mary Woodburn-Miller, daughter of an English baronet who had settled in the town fifteen years earlier. Mary was raped and then strangled.

It seems quite obvious that the Garda are dealing with a psychotic killer, and one who is likely to kill again. For reasons that are never fully explained Superintendent Duffy has his doubts about the motive for the murder.

There will indeed be more murders, and Duffy’s doubts keep growing stronger. 

The murder coincides with the arrival of Alan Russell’s theatrical company. The outrageous larger-than-life actor-manager and his troupe will play a very significant role in the mystery (in fact I believe that Alan Russell appears in several of Fitzgerald’s later books). Also drawn into these tragic events is painter Owen Sheehy. Sheehy is internationally famous as an artist but in Ireland he is even more famous as an IRA hero.

Just about every character in this book is an eccentric of some sort. There’s the Fox, another ex-IRA man turned arsonist. There’s O’Connor from Castle Talbot, descendant of a High King of Ireland, a pleasant fellow but quite mad. There’s the jovial and rotund and rather loquacious Billy Bailey. And there’s Lady Ballybroghill, whiskey-soaked and reputed to possess second sight.

The one real clue Duffy has to go on is that a black Ford was seen near the murder scene. The murderer must have had a car and every other car seen in the vicinity has been accounted for. There are three possible suspects who own black Fords but all have alibis.

By 1953 the classic puzzle-plot mystery was out of fashion with publishers. They believed the public wanted suspense stories or the new style psychological crime novels. Midsummer Malice combines elements of both the puzzle-plot mystery and the psychological crime novel. Alibis play a crucial role and Superintendent Duffy does not neglect the importance of physical clues. And there is certainly a puzzle plot at the heart of the book. There is also a good deal of pop psychoanalytical theorising and the killer’s motive turns out to stem from truly bizarre and outlandish psychological factors, which it has to be said are not very convincing at all.

As a mystery novel it has its weaknesses but these are balanced by some very real strengths. The Irish setting is fascinating, and made more so because it’s not Ireland as seen by an outsider but as seen by an Irish author who lived his whole life there. 

The oddball characters provide a great deal of fun. The theatrical background is wonderfully entertaining.

Midsummer Malice is an excellent example of the decline of the crime novel in the 1950s. What could have been a truly excellent puzzle-plot detective novel is weakened by half-baked psychological silliness. It’s still worth a read if you’re a fan of theatrical mysteries or you’re attracted by the Irish setting.

Nigel Fitzgerald’s books are out of print but used copies can be picked up quite cheaply online.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade

Poul Anderson’s delirious science fiction romp The High Crusade was published in 1960. The basic premise struck me as one that could have made an amusing short story but I was rather dubious as to whether it could be sustained over the course of a novel. In fact Anderson manages to do so without any difficulty whatsoever.

The basic idea is that a spacecraft lands in England, near the village of Ansby, in the year 1345. The spacecraft is a scout ship for the Wersgor Empire. The Wersgorix are an aggressive imperialist spacefaring race who have already enslaved the inhabitants of hundreds of planets. To oppose the alien invaders Sir Roger de Tourneville has a small force of mounted knights, some men-at-arms and some longbowmen.

The Wersgorix, who have mastered the technology of faster-than-light travel, are so far in advance of fourteenth century Earth that the outcome of the encounter is beyond any doubt. It’s going to be not so much a battle as a massacre. And that’s exactly how it turns out. The Wersgorix are slaughtered. They discover that their incredibly advanced military technology is no match for our puny Earth weapons.

This is just the start of the tale. Sir Roger and his followers now find themselves in possessions of a spaceship, and they have a captured prisoner who can be persuaded to tell them how to work it. They intend to fly the spaceship to France to join the King in his campaign there although Sir Roger has the notion it might be possible to use the ship to recapture the Holy Land. They do not however end up in France or in the Holy Land but on the planet Tharixan, hundreds of light years from Earth. Tharixan is a Wersgorix slave planet. It is well defended, by all manner of high technology hardware like fighter aircraft, spaceships, force fields, armoured vehicles and even nuclear weapons. None of which is going to deter a couple of hundred stout Englishmen led by a brave knight like Sir Roger.

What follows is an exuberant space opera plot with pitched battles and daring stratagems, all combined with a romantic intrigue and some amusing observations on competing political systems.

There’s nothing terribly outlandish about a low-tech army winning a single battle against a much more technologically sophisticated enemy (Isandlwana and the Little Big Horn are obvious examples) but there are very few examples of a low-tech army winning a protracted war on a vast scale against a technologically vastly superior enemy. The great thing about this novel is that Anderson consistently comes up with scenarios in which the technological sophistication of the Wersgorix is either no help to them, or becomes a positive hindrance.

One particularly nice thing is that Anderson stresses that although the medieval English are scientifically backward compared to their foes they are every bit as intelligent and every bit as resourceful. In fact, as Roger remarks at one point, the conditions of Europe in the fourteenth century provide him with a much better grounding in the art of political intrigue.

This story involves more than a clash between different military systems - it is also a contest between two sharply differing political systems. The Wersgor Empire is a centralised bureaucracy. The feudal system as practised in medieval England proves to be vastly superior. Again Anderson doesn’t just indulge in wish fulfillment - he demonstrates that feudalism is more flexible and much more suited to conditions of crisis. Sir Roger and his followers are bound together by a complex web of loyalties, rights and duties and this web of mutual obligation can withstand a great deal of stress. A centralised bureaucracy on the other hand can collapse very quickly indeed, given that no-one really has any personal stake in the system.

So we have clever ideas, lots of action, battles on land and in space, some cool aliens and a bit of speculation about competing social methods of social organisation. What about characterisation, usually regarded as the main failing of golden age science fiction? There’s fairly good news here as well. Both Sir Roger and his wife Lady Catherine are fairly complex well-rounded personalities. They have their strengths and weaknesses, sometimes they behave nobly and sometimes not so nobly. Even when they do things we do not approve of we can understand the reasons for their actions. Sir Owain Montbelle is the third party in a fatal romantic triangle but even he’s a little bit more than just a cardboard cutout villain. Branithar, the Wersgorix  captive, is also a bit more than a stock alien character.

The High Crusade is also an amazing amount of fun. Very highly recommended.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Shrieking Pit by Arthur J. Rees

Arthur J. Rees (1872-1942) was an Australian crime author who enjoyed considerable success in the years between the wars, winning the approval of such luminaries as Dorothy L. Sayers. The Shrieking Pit is one of his early mystery novels, appearing in 1919.

The story takes place in Norfolk in 1916. The famous private detective David Colwyn is enjoying a holiday. Colwyn is American-born but explains that he is half-English and has lived in England long enough to have become somewhat acclimatised. The actual story begins with an odd occurrence in the dining room of the Grand Hotel in Durrington. A young man is behaving in a slightly disturbing manner. Colwyn is mildly concerned but one of the other guests, obviously a medical man, is seriously alarmed and persuades Colwyn that immediate action needs to be taken if disaster is to be averted. They escort the young man, who has now fainted, to his room.

Since the medical man turns out to be distiguished Harley Street nerve specialist Sir Henry Durwood his opinion carries considerable weight and in his view the young man is not merely an epileptic but subject to a particular form of epilepsy that can lead to sudden episodes of extreme violence.

The young man is James Ronald who has been invalided out of the army with shell-shock (we later find out that his name is actually James Ronald Penreath). He seems to have made a complete recovery after the incident in the dining room and assures Colwyn and Durwood that he requires no further assistance. The matter seems to be closed.

The following day there is much excitement in the Grand Hotel - a murder has been committed in the nearby village of Flegne-next-sea and the police are hunting a suspect who bears a remarkable resemblance to young James Ronald. Colwyn and Sir Henry immediately set off to see the Chief Constable. Colwyn happens to be personally acquainted with the Chief Constable and finds himself unofficially invited to assist Superintendent Galloway in his investigation.

The murdered man was a well-known archaeologist, Roger Glenthorpe, who had based himself at the Golden Anchor Inn at Flegne while engaged in important fieldwork nearby.

The evidence is entirely circumstantial, but very convincing. The body was found at the bottom of a thirty foot deep pit known locally as the Shrieking Pit. It was a kind of Stone Age mining shaft but now it’s associated with the local legend of the ghostly White Lady - if you see the White Lady you will be dead within the month. The very clear boot prints leading to the pit are the icing on the cake - surely James Ronald must have been the killer. There are lots of other pieces of evidence that all point in the same direction.

What’s most interesting about this book is the ambiguity of the evidence. In fact it forms what might be considered to be the theme of the book. There are many items of evidence that point to Penreath’s guilt, but every single one of them is ambiguous. Superintendent Galloway is satisfied and the evidence might well satisfy a jury as well but Colwyn isn’t happy. He sets out to look out for new evidence. He finds plenty of it - but it’s all ambiguous as well! His new evidence could totally demolish the Crown’s case but if viewed from a different angle it could just as easily place Penreath’s guilt beyond any shadow of a doubt. This is the reason for the constant tension between Colwyn and Superintendent Galloway - they’re both interpreting the evidence in the light of their own theories about the crime.

The book also has quite a bit to say about madness, responsibility and the law. Penreath’s legal advisers in despair over the apparently overwhelming evidence against him, put their hopes in a plea of temporary insanity, with Sir Henry Durwood’s evidence being crucial. The medical evidence is however just as ambiguous as all the other evidence.

There are countless clues. Many of them are quite clever and all are important. The plot is more complex than initial appearances suggest and the themes of ambiguity and the danger of judging evidence based on preconceived notions recur again and again.

The setting is also a major plus. Flegne-near-sea is a decaying and dying village, doomed to be swallowed up by the ever-encroaching marshlands. There is nothing picturesque about this village - it is more like a rotting corpse. The Golden Anchor is a dying inn in a dying village. When you add the ominous legend of the White Lady and the presence of somewhat creepy Stone Age ruins you get a certain stifling and slightly gothic atmosphere that works extremely well. This is not like the theatrical gothic atmosphere you strike in some of John Dickson Carr’s books - this is more sombre and low-key but just as effective.

The war plays an indirect but interesting role. The village of Flegne is dying anyway but the war has hastened its demise. The author seems to have a somewhat sceptical view of a great many sacred cows (such as the jury system), which he expresses in an amusingly sardonic way. He is particularly savage on the subject of the Home Front, taking great pleasure in mocking those who, knowing they will not have to do any actual fighting or take any actual risks, nevertheless welcome the war as a means of advancing their social standing, their petty exercise of power or their political views.

Rees can be just a tad long-winded in places. I’m not sure that the trial really needed to be recounted in quite so much detail. 

All in all though there’s a fine plot, a nicely atmospheric setting, a few hints of the gothic and some food for thought on the subject of circumstantial evidence! I found this one to be thoroughly enjoyable. Highly recommended. 

His 1920 mystery The Hand in the Dark is worth seeking out as well.